The rapid advancements in science and technology have enabled us to penetrate more deeply into the subatomic world, and into the world of the living cell. Molecular biologists have unfolded many secrets behind various life processes such as the human genome. But are we now in a position to answer the question, 'what is life?' as raised, over sixty years ago, by Schrodinger, the well-known quantum physicist? Is life an outcome of the evolution of matter, or is it a fundamentally different entity altogether? How do we explain various phenomena such as consciousness, free will, love, purpose, beauty, etc., which seem to be beyond the mere interaction of biomolecules? On the other hand, if life is beyond matter, in what ways does it interact with matter, and what laws does it follow? In this unique volume, the author closely re-examines the finer characteristics of life and matter, and their interactions. He explains that the present-day physical laws seem quite insufficient to account for the many features of life. Drawing insights from the ancient Vedantic texts, he presents an alternative view of life beyond molecules. This volume may serve as a useful resource for all those interested in delving deeper into the understanding of life.
Dr. T. D. Singh (His Holiness Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami) has a unique background. He is a scientist with a Ph.D. in Physical Organic Chemistry from the University of California, Irvine, USA, as well as a spiritualist in the Bhakti-Vedanta tradition of India. He has authored and edited a number of books on science and religion, including his famous dialogue with Prof. Roger Penrose: Science, Spirituality and the Nature of Reality. He is the International Director-of the Bhaktivedanta Institute and has been one of the pioneers in advancing the dialogue between science and religion over the past three decades.
What is matter and what is life? Are both matter and life (and hence ourselves) ultimately made up of quarks and leptons that interact through the four fundamental forces? Or could life be a fundamentally different reality from matter? If so, what are their origins and how do they interact? We know that we all have consciousness and free will. They are the properties of life. We use them every moment. But how do we define them and how do we distinguish them from dead and inert matter? Are they reducible to merely some neuron patterns in our brain or are they themselves part of some fundamental reality different from matter?
Although these questions have been pondered time and again by many eminent thinkers in both the scientific and philosophical worlds, they have never been fully answered to everyone's satisfaction, and, in spite of such great intellectual endeavour, they still remain unanswered.
Recently, New Scientist came up with top 10 unanswered questions in science about life - "The Mysteries of Life."' These are:
1. How did life begin?
2. How many species are there?
3. Are we still evolving?
4. Why do we sleep?
5. Is intelligence inevitable?
6. What is consciousness?
7. What is sex for?
8. Can we prevent aging?
9. What is life?
10. Is there life on other planets?
Notice the ninth question - 'what is life?' It seems such a trivial question. Is it not a surprise? Even with spectacular advancement in various disciplines of science at our hand, we still do not know what life actually is!
We can further add some more questions to the above list:
• What happens to life after physical death?
• What is the implication of the fact that we search for meaning, purpose, morality, truth and so on?
• Is life temporary or eternal? Why do we give importance to religion and the existence of God?
The illustrious Science journal also came up last year with 125 questions - 'What Don't We Know?' - the fundamental puzzles that are driving basic scientific research.2 Some of these are:
• What is the universe made of?
• What is the biological basis of consciousness?
• What is the nature of gravity?
• Why is time different from other dimensions?
• Are there smaller building blocks than quarks?
• Can the laws of physics be unified?
• How much can human life span be extended?
• How do planets form?
• What is the origin of homochirality in nature?
(Most bio molecules occur in nature in both mirror-image shapes. Yet in organisms, amino acids are always left-handed, and sugars are always right-handed. The origin of this preference (homochirality) remains a mystery.)
• Are we alone in the universe?
• How and where did life on earth arise?
• How is asymmetry determined in the embryo? (Scientists are still looking for the first factors that give a relatively uniform ball of cells a head, tail, front, and back in the embryo)
• What determines species diversity?
• How do migrating organisms find their way? (It remains unclear that what guides the migratory birds, butterflies, and whales who make annual journeys of thousands of kilometers)
• Why do we sleep?
• Why do we dream?
• How did cooperative behavior evolve?
• What is the biological basis of addiction? (The journal presents: "Addiction involves the disruption of the brain's reward circuitry. But personality traits such as impulsivity and sensation-seeking also play a part in this complex behavior.")
• Is morality hardwired into the brain?
• What are the limits of learning by machines?
• How much of personality is genetic?
• How many species are there on earth?
• Why does lateral transfer occur in so many species & how? ("Once considered rare, gene swapping, particularly among microbes, is proving quite common. But why and how genes are so mobile-and the effect on fitness-remains to be determined.")
• What are the roots of human culture? ("No animal comes close to having humans' ability to build on previous discoveries and pass the improvements on. What determines those differences...")
• What are the evolutionary roots of language and music?
• Do deeper principles underlie quantum uncertainty and nonlocality?
Recently, a major conference was organized by Metanexus Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. The topic for its first day was, "The Ocean of Truth - Exploring the Great Unknowns in Physics and Cosmology." Twenty Nobel Laureate scientists and other prominent scientists from all over the world participated in this historic conference to reflect on the 'unknowns.'
The foundational questions of understanding ourselves and the universe were once dismissed as metaphysical, spiritual or unanswerable. Yet all have progressively entered into the purview of science. Today they lie at the frontiers of science. It reminds us the words of the well-known quantum physicist Max Born: "the results of the scientific search in which, during several decades, I have taken a small part, ... leads unavoidably back to those eternal questions which go under the title of metaphysics."
Life is a mystery. Even after Darwin's book, The Origin of Species in 1859, the question of life remains unsolved. The best minds in the fields of biology and philosophy have tried from the dawn of civilization and have failed to define life. Scientists still can't quite put their fingers on exactly what it is that separates a living organism from other types of physical objects.
Over the past three centuries, the ever-increasing success which scientists have experienced in their investigation of gross matter, has led many people to expect that life will eventually be explained solely as an emergent property of matter. At the present time, nearly all serious attempts to understand the origin of life have been based on this fundamental presupposition, and this controversy is thus being conducted within very narrow limits.
In recent years, scientists of many disciplines, such as chemistry, biology, biochemistry, biophysics, geology, geochemistry, and space science, have devoted considerable attention to the study of the origin of life.4 Virtually all these studies are based on the assumption that life is an emergent product of matter.
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